The recent kidnapping and death of 13-year-old Nicole Lovell, allegedly perpetrated by two Virginia Tech students she’d met through popular instant messaging app Kik, has incited a torrent of concern from parents, fearful their child will end up the next victim of tech-savvy predators.
But that worry is grossly misguided, according to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center in Durham, New Hampshire.
A University of New Hampshire sociology professor since 1978, Finkelhor tells PEOPLE research that dates back to the 1990s reveals “the abduction and murder of a child by someone they met online is an extremely rare kind of crime.”
“We have done a number of studies looking at cases of Internet crimes against children that are known to the police, and annually, the vast majority of homicides of children are at the hands of family members, peers, gang members, dating partners – people they know,” says Finkelhor.
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“Internet technology is not a risk-amplifying technology,” Finkelhor continues. “About three percent of all sex crimes committed each year against children involve Internet communications, and most of those cases involve someone the victim met through school, at a party, on the bus, at church, or on the street.”
He adds: “The idea that the danger online is primarily from so-called strangers they don’t know is kind of mistaken. Telling kids not to talk to people they don’t know online is misleading, given the chances they’ll be victimized by someone they know are greater than the chances it’d be someone they didn’t know.”
According to Finkelhor, child predators will commit their crimes wherever children loiter, which is why they’ve been taking to the Internet more and more these last two decades to troll for potential victims.
Yet, the professor claims there is “no clear evidence that being online or using social media increases” a child’s risk of being victimized.
“In fact, we have research that casts doubt on that assertion, which most people view as an article of faith,” Finkelhor tells PEOPLE, noting that “since the mid 1990s, when people had just begun flocking to online communities, the sex crime rate against children is down over 60 percent – the lowest it’s been since the 1950s.”
Finkelhor says parents need to be realistic with their children, and educate them “about what constitutes healthy and inappropriate sexual and romantic relationships.”
He also believes “the Internet could actually be protecting kids in a funny way. I think kids are doing more of their risk-taking and independence-striving online, at home. They’re not going out, into the world, into their neighborhood, which are riskier environments in many ways.”
Children are more easily abducted moving throughout the real world than they are through online interactions, he adds.
“That’s because more things have to happen, during which time good sense can prevail or someone can intervene; someone maybe has second thoughts,” he says. “Also, these days, kids are more used to encountering people who are doing sketchy things because they are online. These kids also know to ignore those people.”